Islam and modernity


Just as it is not reliable to measure the depth of the sea at low tide, it is not fair to evaluate civilisations and cultures at a low point in their history.

A FORTHCOMING seminar in Germany is examining the question whether the Arab world (and by association Islam) is compatible with democracy, rule of law and modernity? It can be conceded that such a question is given credence by the involvement of some Muslims in acts of terrorism and the inability of many Muslim nations to achieve good governance and economic development.

Sleight of hand: Nevertheless, it needs to be pointed out that it is not reliable to measure the depth of the sea at low tide. It is not fair to evaluate civilisations and cultures at a low point in their history. Further, it must be observed that there is much sleight of hand in Western treatment of Islam.

First, in dealing with Muslims there is a willing confusion between the faith and the faithful. The wrongs of Muslims are attributed to their religion. But the same is not done, and rightly so, when Americans and Europeans commit horrendous crimes around the world.

Second, Islam is not a homogenous or monolithic religion. On any issue – whether terrorism, polygamy or dialogue with the West – the Muslim response is rich in diversity. But only the fanatical views are given media coverage in the West.

Third, the West evaluates Islam exclusively by reference to nations in the Middle East and Northern Africa. But there is more to Islam than its Arab adherents. The most populous Muslim societies are in Asia and have a right to be regarded as important torch bearers.

Fourth, the countries chosen as Islam’s paradigm are often those where Western-installed or Western-backed repressive regimes are in control as in Egypt, Kuwait, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In fact a groundswell of democratic sentiment is sweeping most Muslim societies. Muslim masses desire and deserve freedom and good governance as any people anywhere.

Fifth, the pernicious role of the West in obstructing the growth of representative institutions in Muslim societies like Egypt, Algeria, Turkey, Iran and Palestine is blotted out. If electoral results produce a government not subservient to Washington, the West ensures that the government is overthrown.

Evidently, democracy is desirable but only to the extent it produces governments beholden to the West!

Sixth, Islam is judged by reference to its worst-run and unstable societies. For the Christian civilisation, the affluent, liberal democracies of post-World War II are regarded as standard bearers.

Seventh, in comparing civilisations, it is not fair to match the lofty ideals of one civilisation with the ground realities of another. If theory is compared with theory and practice with practice, it will be seen that the cultural distance between Islam and the West is narrower than is assumed.

From a large number of issues let me highlight just a few.

Principles of government: Denial of state sovereignty is a cardinal principle in Islam long before the writings of Locke and Rousseau. The government is a trustee of the people. Its duty is to rule by consultation (3:159).

Islam and knowledge: There is collective amnesia in Europe and America about the West’s debt to the Islamic scientific and cultural heritage.

Economic development: There is a common perception that Islam is the cause of underdevelopment. A UN report indicates that out of 47 low income countries, 25 are Muslim-majority countries. It is submitted, however, that contrasting data is available. For example, on World Food Day, the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation issued a list of 37 countries that require “exceptional external assistance” because they are unable to feed themselves. Twenty-six of the 37 countries were non-Muslim countries.

Violence: Muslim societies do generate a great deal of political violence but Western culture produces more street violence. As to terrorism, Muslims have no monopoly over it especially if we view this abomination in all its manifestations, including wars, threats to use nuclear arms, targetted killings, drone attacks and economic strangulation.

Women: Muslim treatment of women has brought Islam much bad publicity. Actually, Islamic rules on modesty for both genders were meant to de-emphasise sexuality and exploitation. Issues of polygamy, unequal shares in inheritance and admissibility of evidence have been tackled in some Muslim societies with democratic imagination.

World view: There is no denying that the world view of the West and of Islam has much in contrast. One is based on secular materialism and value relativism; the other on faith. One separates temporal and spiritual authority; the other unites them.

One protects the values of all with equal indifference; the other provides positive guides for behaviour and rejects the view that everything can be relativised. One calls for individual liberation; the other extols submission of the individual to the eternal values of God.

Whether Muslim societies must be condemned for such “backwardness” or praised for resisting the onslaught of a sex-laced media culture is a matter of opinion.

> Shad Saleem Faruqi is Professor of Law at UiTM.

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